Pianist Catherine Norton initiates delightful, welcome renaissance in song recitals

Songbook: an anthology of songs about song from five centuries

Songs by Finzi, Telemann, Josquin, Mahler, Canteloube, Vaughan Williams, Browne, Wolf, Schoeck, Stephan, Rachmaninov, Hahn, Farquhar, Bolcom

Amelia Berry (soprano), Elisabeth Harris (mezzo-soprano), Declan Cudd (tenor), James Henare (bass-baritone), Roger Wilson (bass-baritone), Richard Greager (tenor). Catherine Norton (piano), Terence Dennis (piano)

Adam Concert Room

Wednesday 10 June 2015, 6.30pm

Resounding congratulations are due to Catherine Norton, who is not only a superb accompanist, but also is the initiator of Songbook.   She has fairly recently returned from study and performing overseas, mainly in the United Kingdom.  She has worked with the Young Songmakers’ Almanac, descendant of The Songmakers’ Almanac, an English vocal group which toured here some years ago with Chamber Music New Zealand.  This doubtless gave her the idea of doing something similar here.

The presence of Amelia Berry (like Catherine an alumnae of Victoria’s New Zealand School of Music) and James Clayton, from Australia, as soloists in the recent production of La Cenerentola was obviously a spur.  Unfortunately the latter was ill, and at short notice some changes had to be made; two stalwarts of Wellington’s vocal scene, Richard Greager and Roger Wilson, plus the fortuitous presence in Wellington of that doyen of accompanists, Terence Dennis (now Blair Professor of Music at the University of Otago) outstandingly filled the gaps.

I was delighted to discover such an innovation as this concert.  I have bemoaned for years the lack of live song recitals in Wellington these days.  Occasional lunchtime concerts feature singers, but mostly they sing operatic extracts.

There are thousands of wonderful songs out there, in a variety of languages.  The audience was treated to a programme printed in a very readable typeface, with full texts and translations where required, the latter by Catherine Norton herself.  Another excellent feature of the printed programme was that not only were composers’ dates and opus numbers of the songs given where possible, but also the year of composition of the songs, plus the names and dates of the poets.

An eclectic selection of songs about songs, or songs containing songs was a good introduction to what one hopes will become a series of themed recitals.  Included in the mix of singers were cicadas, a donkey, a cricket, a couple of cuckoos, and a nightingale – not to mention the occasional lover, of course.

Elisabeth Harris had the unfortunate task of opening the concert at short notice, with ‘Intrada’ by Gerald Finzi. Some uncertain low notes hardly spoiled the performance of this song (poem by Thomas Traherne) and were understandable in the circumstances.  The voice has matured and become more sonorous since I last heard it.  Catherine Norton was a simply superb accompanist, here and throughout the concert.

Amelia Berry sang a short song, entitled in English translation ‘A new thing’ by Telemann.  A delicious song, it typified Norton’s enterprise in selecting the programme; the words in translation read “Presenting something new, / not after the old tastes, / will depress anyone / who does not hatch anything new himself. / But what kind of slavery is it / to set such narrow limits? / whether it is old, or new, it’s enough if it’s useful and delightful.”

Josquin’s amusing ‘El grillo’ (The cricket) was sung by a quartet of the four School of Music graduates.  Their blend and matching dynamics, pronunciation and excellent diction in this unaccompanied piece allowed the audience to enjoy it amply.

From Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Roger Wilson and Terence Dennis performed ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (translated as ‘In praise of higher understanding’).  This amusing song about a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale, judged by a donkey, had Mahler writing in picturesque style, especially when it came to narrating the donkey’s judgement.  It was performed with much
gusto by these two splendid musicians; a dramatisation could hardly have given us much more.

Amelia Berry returned to perform a Languedoc folk song arranged by Joseph Canteloube in 1948: ‘O up!’  A cuckoo featured again, and a cicada.  The excellent French and the style with which Berry put it over embodied the humour. She sang next a Vaughan Williams song ‘Orpheus with his lute’.  She has great tone throughout her range, and her phrasing and enunciation of words are very pleasing. Sometimes I found her a little too loud for the size of the venue.

Catherine Norton had chosen two songs by men who died 100 years ago this year, during the First World War, one English, one German.  Richard Greager sang ‘To Gratiana dancing and singing’ by William Denis Browne, to words by Richard Lovelace – a fine poem.  In this the accompaniment was particularly lovely – and not easy.  Like Roger Wilson, Greager demonstrated that he continues in good voice, and sang this enchanting music so well that it was hard to remember it was at short notice.

This range of gorgeous songs, some familiar; others not, did not even touch on the most famous song writers, except Wolf; his was the next song: ‘Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden’, sung by Amelia Berry.  Again, her language was extremely good, and she introduced light and shade into her rendition.

A poem ‘Ravenna’ by Herman Hesse was set by Othmar Schoeck, a Swiss composer who died in 1957.  The words revealed that Hesse was not particularly impressed by the town, and the setting was unusual musically.  However, James Henare sang it well in his wonderfully deep bass voice.

Tenor Declan Cudd performed ‘The canticle of night’ by the other war victim, Rudi Stephan.  Cudd was the only one of the singers to perform his song from memory, and his full tenor voice was very lively; his performance had plenty of volume when required, and the song demonstrated yet again that all these composers set their poets’ words very well.

The best-known item was Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’, written in 1915 (another centenary).  Amelia Berry demonstrated superb breath control, and varied her voice and dynamics beautifully.  Catherine Norton brought out the melodic phrases in the accompaniment splendidly.

Richard Greager gave great feeling and expression to the French song ‘Le souvenir d’avoir chanté’ by Reynaldo Hahn.  (Wikipedia gives the date of composition as 1898; the 1888 given in the programme seemed a little improbable, even though Hahn was a child prodigy – he was born in 1874).

The New Zealand element, ‘Synaesthesia’ by David Farquhar, a setting of a poem by Cilla McQueen, was sung by Elisabeth Harris.  The repetitive nature of the  accompaniment and also of the vocal line were part of an effective and commandingly sung item.  Like Berry, Harris has learned to use her resonators well.  And Norton demonstrated that she is well able to work in a huge variety of styles throughout what was only three-quarters of an hour.

The programme ended with a song by American William Bolcom (born 1938): ‘Over the piano’, a cabaret song.  Amelia Berry sang it in suitable style, leaning against the piano and supplying appropriate gestures and facial expressions.  The poem ending with ‘Goodbye’ made it an apt end to the recital, although another was in the programme which could not be performed given the absence of James Clayton.  However it would have been fitting: a Hindemith setting of words by Francis Thompson, beginning “Go, songs, for ended is our brief, sweet play”.

It was a treat to hear a programme like this.  Thanks to all concerned – do it again soon!


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